Public sector pay rises in line with soaring inflation are “unaffordable”, Transport Secretary Mark Harper has said, raising the chances of a winter of strikes going ahead.
The Cabinet minister said on Sunday there “simply isn’t the money” to meet the demands of workers preparing to take industrial action but hinted at progress in talks over rail strikes.
Mr Harper indicated a change in the mandate for negotiations and said pay rises could come if rail workers accept reforms, after holding “positive” talks with Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch.
Nurses are set to stage their first UK-wide strike action next month, as they join transport and postal workers on the picket lines in disputes over pay and conditions.
Mr Harper told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “Inflation-matching or inflation-busting pay rises are unaffordable.
“I think we want to try and give all the workers in the public sector who work very hard decent pay rises, but they can’t be inflation-busting pay rises.
“There simply isn’t the money to pay for those given the context, we haven’t seen those in the private sector either, the private sector pay rises have generally been settled below the level of inflation, which I accept is difficult for people.”
He told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg that rail bosses “will have the ability to reach a deal”, when pressed about whether they have the mandate to properly negotiate with the RMT.
“But we have to be able to have that reform package negotiated, because it’s only that that throws up the savings,” Mr Harper said.
“I do not have a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to throw at this problem.”
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen said: “While billions of pounds is being spent on temporary measures like agency staff to stick a plaster on the NHS workforce crisis, we are told a pay rise for nursing staff is unaffordable.
“With 47,000 nurse vacancies in England’s NHS alone, a pay rise for nurses isn’t just about fair pay – it’s about retaining and recruiting enough nurses to safely care for patients.
“Strike action is always a last resort but for too long we have been ignored. Nursing staff won’t stand by while their patients are put in harm’s way – they are doing this for themselves and for their patients.”
Those hoping the strikes will be called off by Christmas, including TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, welcomed a “change in tone” from the Government.
Former Conservative Party chairman Sir Jake Berry said he has “real hope” for a settlement as he criticised Mr Harper’s predecessor as transport secretary, Grant Shapps, for making a “big mistake” by taking a “not me guv” approach to talks.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), the industry body, said: “With time running out to avert the widespread Christmas disruption which would result from further industrial action, we need the RMT to call off the strikes and work with us to reach a fair deal for our people, our passengers and for the taxpayer.”
Christina McAnea, the general secretary of the Unison union, said public sector workers “can’t go on taking what amount to pay cuts year after year”.
“Ministers must understand that unless they give proper wage rises, there’ll be no one left to look after our health, care for the vulnerable, run schools and provide essential community services,” she added.
The RMT said Mr Harper must “make his role as facilitator tangible and real”.
“That means setting out in writing the role and authority of the RDG, and giving them the mandate that enables them to make an offer that will create a settlement,” a statement said.
Public sector workers like many in the private sector are calling for significant pay rises so they do not face real-terms cuts, as inflation soars past 11%.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has agreed to increase state pensions and benefits payments in line with inflation but has said nurses’ demand for a 19% hike is “unaffordable”.
RCN members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will walk out on December 15 and 20 if the dispute is not resolved.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay has urged the nursing union to “come back to the table” for talks but he is declining to discuss pay, instead wanting to talk about conditions such as pension arrangements, holidays, rosters and the availability of free coffee.
Ms Cullen wrote to Mr Barclay telling him it is “negotiations or nothing”.